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This morning, I watched two TED talks by Brené Brown: one on shame, and one on vulnerability. They have inspired me to finally open my mouth on the subject. To put myself out there, which terrifies me more than just about anything.
What if I tell EVERYONE how I am feeling? Try to explain the decisions that I have made? Try to get them to understand how I ended up here?
They will judge me. They will reject me. They will think I am not this nice person that they thought I was. Now there is something wrong with me and EVERYONE will know it.
My god, that is terrifying to think about.
So for quite a while, I have kept this to myself. Let my feelings of deep, excruciating shame churn and multiply and mature in my psyche to the detriment of my physical and emotional health.
But I am ready to be vulnerable and tell my story and finally see if I can come out of the grip of shame and into a healthier place for me and the people around me.
I thought it was very timely, watching Dr. Brown’s talks right after the hell that was Mother’s Day for me this year. As all the Mother’s Day posts started streaming in from Australia, and then Europe, and then the US, I knew that I had to walk away from social media. It was crushing me. Not just because I didn’t have my mom, who died in 2007, but most of all because I didn’t have my kids.
I couldn’t add anything to the more or less constant stream of people adding pictures of themselves with their mothers or pictures of moms with their kids. I had to run from it. I spent most of Mother’s Day in tears and this is why:
In the course of my divorce, I made a decision to be as fair as possible and to take the high road. I knew that my situation had the potential to get very, very ugly and turn my children’s life into a living hell. I had custody of my children when I initiated the divorce. I let their father take them for the summer vacation and he never brought them back. He called me less than a day after he picked them up and informed me that he wasn’t giving them back. I was heartbroken and 100% without legal recourse, since it was legal for him to co-opt custody just like that.
That summer, as I tried desperately to figure out how I was going to get them back, how I was going to fight him in court, how I was going to get over this hurdle, he started telling the children very bad things about me. Not all were lies, but most were. He never said a word about his role in anything. Never told the truth about the years of abuse he put me through or how I would have to try to protect them from his rages and mental breakdowns. By the end of the summer, they had taken his side.
I will never be able to describe the heartbreak that I felt when I asked them if they wanted to stay with him and they said “yes.” The betrayal I felt at the hands of my children, these little people I carried with me and nurtured and loved and tried to protect. They had chosen my abuser over me. I thought, “How can I go on in a life like this? There is no justice in this world and I don’t want to be here anymore.”
After I spent many nights crying myself to sleep, I made a decision. If the kids wanted to stay with their dad, they could stay with their dad. I wouldn’t subject them to a courtroom circus, I wouldn’t drag their father through the muck, even though I most certainly could, I wouldn’t cause them the guilt associated with choosing one parent over another. I would take the high road.
Let me tell you, sometimes the high road feels like the lowest road you’ve ever been on in your life. Sometimes you don’t want to go on. Sometimes you think life would be better if it were just over.
These are selfish thoughts and I try not to be a selfish person. In fact, no matter how much it hurts and how ashamed I feel about it, letting my kids decide and sparing them the she said/he said between me and their father seems like the most selfless act I have ever committed.
In their story, their father gets to be the hero and I have to play the villain. The mother who ran away with a Norwegian and forsook the family for her own selfish reasons.
The truth is that I subjected myself to years of psychological abuse and tried to hold onto a relationship that was unhealthy, at best, for nearly 15 years. I didn’t run away at the first sign of adversity. I tried and tried and tried and tried until one day I woke up and thought to myself, “You are 33 years old. How many more years of your life are you going to waste being miserably unhappy?” And that was that. I decided to separate from my husband and he moved away and I filed for divorce.
I knew I could never live a healthy life with him and now he’s gone and my kids are gone and I am wondering, “How can I ever live a healthy life, period?”
How can I ever forgive myself for making this choice? How can I ever expect my kids to understand why I did it? Will they ever realize that I did this for them? Will they ever know that refusing to bring them down into the muck and refusing to say anything bad about this man who nearly destroyed my spirit is the greatest sacrifice I have ever made?
There is pain from the loss, from the injustice of it all, from the loneliness, but these feelings are almost always accompanied by or eclipsed by shame.
I hate it when people ask me questions about my kids and I should love it. Don’t parents love talking about their kids? I love my kids. I am proud of my kids. I would love to talk about my kids but I can’t. Because I am the mother who doesn’t live with her kids and I don’t want to have to keep explaining why.
There is a real stigma attached to mothers who don’t have primary physical custody of their children. Whispers. Assumptions. Judgment. What horrible thing must I have done to not have custody of them? I must be really fucked up.
Even though I didn’t “lose” custody of the kids, I chose not to fight over it, the stigma is still there. I am not an unfit mother, but I feel shamed because of the choice that I made. I never chose to give up being a mother, but I feel like society sees it like that. If I wasn’t willing to go to court and duke it out and put all the dirt on the table, I must not care enough.
I care too much. I care so much that the pain I spared my children by not destroying their father’s character in court or seeing his attempt to destroy mine was worth losing my day-to-day life with them. I knew that our case in court had the potential to damage them fundamentally and I didn’t want to hurt them like that. I felt like I was being a better mother in doing this. In sparing them that trial and by allowing them to continue loving their father. And, hopefully, they will continue loving me.
But each day is a challenge and some more than others. Only my middle son remembered me on Mother’s Day. It wasn’t just the sadness of not hearing “Happy Mother’s Day” from your other children, it was the overwhelming feeling of shame that I was not worth being remembered.
Tears stream down my face as I write this because shame will do that to you. It makes you feel like there is something wrong with you; that you are unworthy, unloved, recognized only by your failures.
And you know who is doing this to me? I am. I cannot forgive myself for my decision. I cannot watch my children’s relationship with their father wax while mine wanes and not be profoundly affected by it. I cannot allow myself to be fully happy with all this shame constantly creeping around the corners.
Shame has come to be a defining character in my post-divorce life. I cannot be whole; I am filled with holes. Filled with embarrassment by my situation. Terrified that someone will take one look at me and say, “Yep. She’s a bad mother. What kind of mother would let go of her children?” That is my daily reality.
I’ve found that this has been exacerbated by having too much time to think. I am not working right now, I am in a new country, and, most of all, I miss my children desperately. I keep waiting for them to realize that I made this great sacrifice for them, that I did the right thing, and that they appreciate so much what I have done for them. As the days go by, I have to face the reality that this won’t happen. They won’t ever understand why I did this. What I gave up for them. That they may see only the opposite- that I ran away and didn’t fight for them.
This is what I must learn to cope with: true selflessness means expecting no “thank you” after a deed. I have to overcome my need for a thank you, because if I don’t, I will never be able to get out of shame’s grip on my life. They may never say “thank you” to me. They may hate me one day for this. I must live with the consequences and get on with the business of living.
What do I have to gain by loathing myself? What does it give my children? Will they be any happier knowing that I reside in this den of shame and self-loathing? Will our relationship thrive if every conversation I have with them has a shadow of fear and desperation attached to it? No.
The muck that I spared them from is the muck that I am currently entrenched in. I have to find my way out. I have to learn to value myself again and know that I am worthy of love and respect. I owe it to my children and to the man who has stood by my side and held my crying face in his hands and told me he would be there for me always.
Coming out is the first step.
So here I am. This is me. I am not perfect. I have made a decision so profound that it has knocked loose any shred of self-worth that I once possessed. But I am ready to expose myself to rejection and judgment and condemnation because I know I must if I am to get better.